The highs and lows of a Beijing night
From left, IOC Coordination Commission Chairman for the Sochi winter 2014 Olympics Jean-Claude Killy, Chiharu Igaya of the IOC Evaluation Commission for the Sochi winter games, CEO of the Sochi games Dmitry Chernyshenko, IIHF President Rene Fasel , professional hockey player Alexander Ovechkin, and Russian IOC member Vitaly Smirnov, are seen during a party at the Russia House in Beijing to promote the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
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BEIJING -- So, you are having a Beijing night?" the woman with the thick Russian accent asked.
Why, yes. Yes, I was.
It had seemed like an interesting idea to accept an invitation to a party held the other night by the Olympic committees from Vancouver (Winter Games 2010) and Sochi, Russia (Winter Games 2014).
I already had made one foray by myself outside the Olympic zones, to the Silk Market. A nice man in the travel agency at the press center wrote "Silk Market" in Chinese for me to give to the taxi driver.
The 20-minute ride cost the equivalent of about $5. I got a few items inside the five-story building lined with booths operated by aggressive salespeople offering all manner of things -- clothing, luggage, jewelry, toys -- by barter.
The place was packed with locals, tourists, athletes, even a couple of dignitaries who pulled into VIP parking spots in black sedans and were followed by cameras. No idea who they were.
There was a booth at the back of the fourth floor offering pedicures. After a lot of walking here, I considered it. But when the curtain opened for just a second, I saw two rows of tightly placed chairs and many tiny Chinese women working on what looked mostly to be the hairy lower legs and feet of men.
As I had been promised, there was a taxi stand behind the building. The first two drivers turned up their noses when I handed them a card with the address of my media village in Chinese. I got the third one to accept when I showed him a bigger card with the address and map for the press center. It just meant an extra bus trip back to the village.
On the night of the party, I set out with my invitation, which had the name and address of the restaurant in English and Chinese. The Olympic volunteers and a policeman in front of the village encouraged the cab driver he would be able to find it.
About 15 minutes into the trip, I remembered I had a printed map to the place but had forgotten it. That was a big mistake.
The driver eventually got to what looked like a nice area, but when he turned off a main street onto a series of narrow roads made darker by the fact that it was pouring, I got the feeling he didn't know where he was going. He turned up a long street along a waterway that was lined with brightly lit restaurants and bars.
But none was my destination.
He finally stopped for directions, but it was just the first of about six such stops. It seemed that some people we asked knew the restaurant, but the driver couldn't comprehend their directions.
Cabs here have no GPS devices, no radio back to a command post, but he was able to call some sort of translation service. The woman asked me in English for the address, then told him directions in Chinese.
An hour and 20 minutes into the ride, we got to a corner in the same general area we had been circling but where a right turn was blocked by police. The driver indicated the restaurant was down that road. I felt like I was being dumped off in the middle of nowhere, but a policeman, through gestures, indicated that it was, indeed just down the road. So did a woman with the translation service when the driver called there again.
So I paid him -- about $9.50 U.S. -- and put my blazer over my head. Did I mention it was pouring? And that I had forgotten an umbrella?
I trudged up the dark street, at times up to my ankles in water, but there was nothing that looked like a restaurant. In fact, there was just a long wall on my side of the street.
Finally, I noticed a "Russian Olympic Committee" logo on a car that was creeping by inches from me. I tapped on the window, annoying the Chinese driver. That's when the Russian woman stepped up, guessed my predicament and offered to show me where the party was.
Just ahead was an opening in the wall, which revealed a long promenade of restaurants and bars facing a lovely lake.
The party was in a nice indoor/outdoor place that was a long series of pavilions, small dining rooms and walkways set on the waterway with colored fountains and beds of blooming water lotus. I decided to drip-dry while exploring the place before settling in at the bar with some Canadians.
I passed several Russian athletes. It was impossible to tell if they were talking about sports, the food or the mounting trouble in Georgia.
Near the back, I came upon Alex Ovechkin sitting alone on a wall over a pond. The Russians brought the Washington Capitals winger and reigning NHL MVP here to help promote the Sochi Games.
"You all by yourself?" I asked.
"No, I'm with friends," he said, although they were nowhere in sight.
I told him I was from the Pittsburgh paper and had interviewed him several times.
"Pittsburgh?" Ovechkin said, lighting up a bit. "Tell [Sidney] Crosby hello."
"What about [Evgeni] Malkin?" I asked.
He told me it was a seven-hour flight from home and he would be here two or three days.
"It's for Russia," he said.
So maybe the hockey star had a better reason to be at the party than me, but I would bet he didn't have the same adventure getting there.
After a mojito, I walked on the business-front side of the promenade past more bars and restaurants, some with live music, and one dark entrance marked "Sex."
The rain had stopped and it was no problem getting a cab to the press center on the busy street at the end of the walk. I was in bed by midnight. Can't wait to go out again when I get the time.
First Published August 12, 2008 12:00 am